At Home With Vivian: Cousins

“Ain’t nobody crazier than your cousins on your Mama’s side!”

My cousin Alice posted this on Facebook today. “Yep. That’s me!” I replied. My kid sister Johnette posted beneath me, “Me too!” I guess it is true. We are some crazy cousins.

I was very lucky to grow up with cousins. Lots of cousins. Between my father and his four siblings, and my mother and her seven siblings, there are forty-five of us cousins. I come from a very prolific family. How many cousins do you have?

Geeky me pictured with my cool Ward cousins. Steve, me, Johnny, Brion, Danny, and my sister Johnette
Geeky me pictured with my cool Ward cousins. Steve, me, Johnny, Brion, Danny, and my sister Johnette

There’s a twenty-five-year age span between us cousins. My sister Karen was one of the oldest and my sister Johnette was one of the youngest. The age difference has worked out pretty well for my sisters and me over the years. My sister Brenda (12 years my senior) remembers babysitting for Aunt Marion and Uncle Bill’s four young boys back in the 1950’s. “Uncle Billy drove all the way to West Pittsburg to pick me up to babysit in Antioch,” Brenda marveled. “They even had snacks waiting for me!” When Aunt Marion and Uncle Bill came home from the movie, they brought Brenda a hamburger and French fries, and then paid her five dollars! The going rate for babysitting at that time was thirty-five cents an hour. Brenda loved babysitting her cousins!

Except when she went along with Karen to babysit Aunt Tootsie’s three children. Aunt Tootsie gave Karen the babysitting instructions. As soon as the parents left, Karen sat down with a book. Brenda played with her cousins and kept them entertained. She loved her cousins. Her sister? Not so much on those occasions. “I did the work and Aunt Tootsie always paid Karen!”

I benefited from being in the younger half of the cousins. When I was in middle school and needed help in algebra, my oldest cousin, Richard the math wizard, was not only my go-to tutor, but he lived next door to my best friend. That was very cool. But it was definitely very weird when he started dating my best friend’s mother. It worked out in the end though. He married her and I got four more cousins out of the deal.

We cousins were all raised between West Pittsburg and Antioch except for the military families who came through every so often. My older sisters went to elementary school with Uncle Howard’s kids in West Pittsburg. Brenda and cousin Nancy were the same age and hung out together.

Nancy’s sister Bess was a year older but was in Brenda’s class at Ambrose Elementary School. They didn’t have Special Education classes back in the 1940s so Bess, who had an intellectual disability, was mainstreamed into a regular classroom. Brenda remembers nearly coming to blows when stepping between Bess and her bullies. Eventually the tormentors learned to stay away from Bess, at least while Brenda was around. Protecting Bess was a source of pride and sometimes irritation for Brenda. At a family reunion as adults, Bess told me how much she loved being with Brenda as a kid. “She wasn’t just my cousin. She was my friend.”

My mom was not a healthy woman and she spent her vacations in the hospital – ulcers, gall bladder, sinuses, cancer, whatever. Other than the worry for my mother, I loved going to stay with my Aunt Marion. I was just one of four daughters at my house, but I was the only girl in a house with four boys at hers! She spoiled me with all sorts of girlie activities that she couldn’t do with her sons. I had fun with Aunt Marion Ward. But I had more fun hanging out with her boys!

The Ward cousins lived in a neighborhood with a lot of kids. In those days we all played outside as much as we could. My cousin Steve and I were a few months apart in age, were in the same grade at school, and for many years were physically matched in size and skill. He always let me play on his team for whatever game we were playing with the boys in the neighborhood. Usually it was football; sometimes it was tag. Once in a while, after dark when the parents forgot to call us in, we would lie on the front lawn and look up at the sparkling sky. “Do you think there’s life on Mars?” we’d wonder, pointing out the constellations and marveling at the stars.

I climbed trees in the backyard with my cousins and their friends. While they took turns being Tarzan and Boy, I was mildly insulted when they insisted on calling me “Jane”. Other than that, I was just one of the boys; kickball, freeze tag, digging a hole to China. Football was my favourite game. Being bigger and stronger than most girls my age, I could tackle with the best of the boys. That is, until one day in seventh grade when my aunt told me I was too old to rough house with the boys. I was supposed to be a lady.

It was hard to take at first. The boys were disappointed when I told them I couldn’t play. After all, I was one mean full back. My Uncle Bill even told me I had the perfect build for one. But Aunt Marion was right to end it. Some of Steve’s friends were starting to look very cute to me. Maybe I was letting them tackle me?

A few years later a cute cheerleader approached me as I was getting into my high school locker which was next to Steve’s. “You’re Steve’s cousin?” she asked. Here we go again, I thought. My cousin Steve had grown to be a very handsome, kind, and popular, young man as well as a star on the football team. When I told her yes, that I was Steve’s cousin, she asked me if I wanted to hang out after school. From the time we hit our teen years, I had to fend off girls wanting to be my “friend” just to get close to Steve and his cool gang. To tell the truth though, it was kind of fun being related to a campus ‘star’.

My cousins and I are all grown up. Some of them have passed on to the next world along with all of our parents. I was lucky to have grown up with so many cousins. I always felt protected and loved. Even today, if I needed them, I know they would be here for me.

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